Posted by: pointlenana | March 3, 2014

Napa Valley Marathon – 3/2/2014

I’m way behind on things I did last year – I guess Boston/London took a while to recover from.  So I’ll just skip ahead and cover Napa while it’s fresh in my mind.

The quick version: 3:21:23, 135 out of 1768, 5th out of 114 in my age group.  This is a new PR for me by almost 5 minutes (from 3:26:14), and for the first time I’ll be able to sign up for Boston before the last registration window.  I ran a good but not perfect race, trying to break 3:20 but fading at the end.  Given that a pre-training test 15k in October indicated that 3:24 was a reasonable goal, and recent 10k and 15k races indicated I was somewhere between 3:22 and 3:20 shape, it was a successful marathon.

The very long version:

Why Napa:  I was originally aiming for an early-April race that I am running with a friend.  But running for my own time and running with my friend weren’t both going to be possible at the same time so sometime in early December I looked around and Napa seemed to be a good option for my personal race.  Not too far from Seattle, decent weather, and a reasonably fast course.  Also, I’ve done a few bike rides in and near Napa and I love that area.  The marathon course runs from Calistoga south to Napa, and on the rides I had ridden most of the course heading northbound.  I remembered some rolling hills but nothing ugly.  Of course, in a pace line travelling 20-25 mph short uphills go by very quickly, and downhills are free on a bike.

Training:  After running so much last year – 800 miles of races, including 26 marathons and ultras – I thought I could handle a tough training cycle.  My most recent cycles had averaged about 55 miles/week and topped out in the 70 mile range, with 1 occasionally 2 quality days each week in addition to the long run.  This time I chose the Pfitzinger 18/85 plan as the base, adding a second quality day each week (usually by replacing his strides/100 meter “sprints” day) and also doing many of the 12-15 mile midweek runs as progressions where I accelerated gradually through the run.  In the 15 weeks of real training I averaged about 75 miles/week, with 4 or 5 weeks above 80.  I messed the training rhythm up a bit late last year with my 4 marathons in 4 days quadzilla over Thanksgiving and a 50k in mid-December, but after that I stuck to the plan.  I started scaling back with three weeks to go and ran about 31 miles in the week before the race.


The forecast was perfect leading up to the race – low of about 42, high of 63, and we’d hit a dry window between storms.  I run best when the temps are in the 40s (Seattle weather) and I don’t think I’ve done a run above 50 since the fall, so that seemed great.

On Friday I had my golden locks shorn, all 6 of them.  I figure the better aerodynamics and reduced weight saved me 0.00001 seconds, and I wanted every advantage I could get.  The only purpose of this trip was to run, so I flew down on Saturday morning.  Travel went smoothly and I got to the expo around 1:30.  Nice race shirt focusing on “classic” N. CA races – Napa, Big Sur, CIM, and a couple others.  A very nice ASICS duffel too, which was our official gear bag.  Besides the official stuff I spent about 5 minutes looking at the expo, not needing anything and really not wanting to add to a collection that is already too large.  I had signed up for the 4pm pasta “dinner” and wanted to drive the course, so I worked my way to Calistoga slowly up 29 behind all the wine tourists.  I think the highlight of the drive was Gott’s Roadside in St. Helena – a 50’s era diner with a sign that said “Burgers, Shakes, Wine”.   Sometime during my drive I started getting a headache, and naturally assumed I was about to come down with the flu.

When I finally got to Calistoga I was worried about making it back to eat, so I headed east to the Silverado Trail where the start was and headed south.  Most of the course is on that road.  When driving it’s hard to tell, but the course seemed rolling with some flat-ish sections, a long gradual hill around mile 20, a good downhill right after, and then 5-6 miles of flat to the finish.  I missed a turn near the end and didn’t see the last mile or so.

I made it back to dinner just in time.  Pasta dinners at races are plus/minus.  My first one spoiled me – the first year Janet and I ran Big Sur there was an awesome pre-race dinner with lots of locally-grown produce.  Ever since then they’ve been ok.  But they are easy and in a situation where I don’t know anyone, it’s nice to sit with other runners.  There were also several speakers, including Joe Henderson who founded Runners World a while back.

In the evening I met OldManRunning (aka Steve) and his wife Pam for a beer (non-alcoholic in my case).  OMR and I both participate in a “sub 3:20” thread in the Runners World forums and it was a chance to meet him in person.  He’s fast, and was hoping to reduce his 3:05-ish PR and maybe go under 3 hours.  Great people and nice way to spend time, vs. fretting alone in my room.

When I went to bed the headache was still there.  I thought about taking something but usually those go away when I sleep.  I was asleep around 9:30.

Race day:  My day started at 1:30 am, not because I wanted it to, but because that’s when I woke up.  I’ve done enough events that normally I sleep fine but this was the first race in a year where I really cared about my finish time and I knew that I would be facing a difficult 45-60 minutes at the end.  The headache was still there and I considered taking something but the race is hard enough on my body and it wasn’t too bad so I passed.  I lay in bed until 3:30, got up, dressed and lubed etc., got a bagel and banana from the hotel runners feed, and twiddled my thumbs until 5 when I headed out to wait for a bus.  My hotel was race headquarters so they had buses from the hotel to the start.  This time it was school buses, just like my first year at Boston.  I’m not a big person but I had a choice between sitting up straight with all my weight on my sit bones, or sliding down 1/16 inch and putting a lot of weight on my knees against the seat in front of me.  By the time we got to the start I felt like I had piriformis syndrome in both cheeks.  I felt sorry for OMR, who is taller than I am.  Somewhere during the bus ride I realized the headache was probably from not having tea for a couple days – caffeine withdrawal.  I did that mostly to help with pre-race hydration but in hindsight it was dumb to do it for just a couple days.  Anyway, when I realized the cause, I decided I probably wasn’t going to pass away from flu during the race.

My bus got to the start relatively early in the lineup, so I had a short walk and a very short wait for my first round through the port-eau-pots.  I was still bundled – I’ve made the mistake of not wearing enough – but it was warm and at some point the announcer said it was 52.  Uh-oh.  Oh well, it wasn’t Boston 2012.  I was planning on wearing throw-away gloves and hat for a bit, but when I heard that I stripped down to my shorts and singlet and packed everything back in my bag.

One cool thing about Napa is they let you bring your own special drinks.  I’ve been doing my long runs with a water bottle and Hammer Perpetuum, so I thought I’d try it.  I flew down with a carry-on with 8 empty 12oz water bottles, decorated festively with colored duct tape (so I could identify my bottle easily), with a little drink mix.  I didn’t expect to use all 8 but I figured I’d miss some. My son was sure they wouldn’t make it through security, and they did look suspicious, but no problem.  I mixed them up in-between bouts of thumb twiddling that morning at the hotel, and dropped them off in the crates at the start for the aid stations up to mile 24.  I also carried a few gus in case there was some kind of special-drink disaster.

I warmed up on the race side of the start and headed back to line up about 10 minutes beforehand.  Steve/OMR found me a couple minutes later.  An 89 year old guy, who owns the 75-79 and 80-84 course records (and probably the 85-89 record after yesterday), sang the national anthem.  Steve and I wished each other luck and we were off.

Race Strategy:  I had three goals.

A) Break 3:20.  The consensus on the forum was that I had a shot but I would need to be perfect.  A woman I think of as The Pace Prophet took all my data, ran it through her analytics, consulted a Quija board, etc., and predicted 3:21 based on my proven ability to fade at the end.  But since I was close I thought I’d try and hopefully not fall apart completely if I came up short.

B) PR – run better than 3:26:14.  My second marathon was a 13 minute improvement over my first.  My 8th marathon was a 3 second improvement over my second.  My 18th marathon was a two minute improvement over my 8th and brought me down to 3:26:14.  This was going to be my 45 marathon/ultra – most more for fun than for speed – and I had run several along the way where I thought I could go fast but landed back in the 3:28-3:30 range.  After good training I wanted to see actual improvement.

C) Qualify for Boston (under 3:30).  By my own definition, any race where I get a BQ is a good race since I’m a squeaker who makes it in by a few minutes at the most.

With the A goal in mind, I planned to run a steady 7:37 pace from the start, hoping I could hang on and possibly speed up at the end like I had done in my marathon-pace long runs.  7:37 would bring me in under 3:20 with a few seconds to spare.  At each mile marker I’d keep track of the delta relative to the 7:37 pace target.

The Race:

Mile 1: 7:47.  Most runners start too fast – after the taper and with the adrenaline, it’s easy to bolt out.  I didn’t do that for once, and possibly for the first time in my life.  Partly this is because there were a lot of slow people in front of me.  Last year, the 3:20 finishers were about 150th in the race.  At the start I tried to line up about 150 people back.  In the first 1/4 mile I passed/wove around a bunch of people who had no business being up there, including some who would be lucky to break 4:30.  I don’t get that.  This was a flat mile.  10 seconds down/slow after 1 mile.

Miles 2-7:  7:33, 7:40, 7:34, 7:42, 7:45, 7:36.  This was all rolling and my times reflect this.  I’d slow down a bit on the ups, and push a little on the downs.  I’m not a particularly good downhill runner but I’ve worked on that (especially in the trail races) and can now go down faster without trashing my quads.  This was the cambered section of the road and as someone pointed out beforehand I had a choice between avoiding the camber or running the tangents.  I went for the tangents, to avoid running extra distance.  The camber wasn’t too bad really.

I was running close to another guy who clearly was being paced by a friend who was about 150 feet ahead of us.  The pacer friend yelled back about running tangents – the hilarious thing was that he’d round a turn and then immediately swing hard over to the other side to get ready for the next turn, basically not running tangents at all.  This was hilarious for a few miles and then got annoying.  At some point I told the guy being paced to ease across the road.  That 7:36 mile at the end looks good relative to 7:37 but in reality I found myself settling into a slow-ish pace around 7:40 and decided to push for a bit trying to get used to something faster.

I had my first special drinks experience at the aid station in mile 5.  I knew that my drink would be after the Gatorade and water, but I didn’t know where, how many bottles there would be, etc..  There was a small table with about 30 bottles, my bottle with the tape was pretty visible thanks to the yellow “flag” on the top, and I grabbed it successfully.  Getting the fluid down wasn’t perfect – it wasn’t a sport top, so I couldn’t squeeze and it came glugging out.  I didn’t want to carry it for a couple miles, so I got a few ounces in and tossed it towards the end of the garbage swath.  I hate tossing stuff on the road – sorry to whoever cleaned up after us.

Down 16 seconds after 7 miles.

Mile 8-11: 7:33, 7:32, 7:35, 7:36.  As planned (during mile 7), I pushed for a couple miles and then target pace seemed doable.  I was pleased with the 7:35/7:36 miles and felt like I was executing as perfectly as I could given the still-rolling course.  Fluid bottles were going like the first one had – not getting quite as much in as I wanted and a little frustrating, but mostly ok.

Down 4 seconds after 11 miles.

Miles 12-20:  7:39, 7:32, 7:42, 7:34, 7:45, 7:37, 7:30, 7:36, 7:43.  In the car, this section was flat.  In person it was still rolling with some flat-ish sections.  I was running behind two people who seemed solid and steady so I focused on them.  The first was a guy who overtook me somewhere in the start of this section and was very steady, but who ran bad tangents (most people did – I’d often be the only one on the left side of the road as all the other runners took the long way around a long left hand turn).  A woman a little ahead kept plugging along.  One problem with locking on to other people is that they can slow and if you don’t pay attention you can slow too even if you don’t need to.  After a few miles with these excellent rabbits, I realized the guy had slowed down so I overtook him and focused on the woman.  After another few miles, the woman slowed a bit and I passed her.  (She passed me back near the end – good for her.)

I had a 3 part mantra for this race.  “Easy”, both a command and an experience, up to mile 16-18 depending upon how I felt, “I’m strong” for the next 6 miles, and “Finish it” for the end.  I made it to mile 17 before “Easy” stopped resonating, and switched to “I’m strong” at that point.

The rolling continued – that 7:30 mile was on a steady downhill, just before the “big” uphill.  Mile 20 – the long gradual uphill – came and although I felt like I was working hard it went by without too much trouble.

My personal drink bottles got to be a little bit of an issue in here.  The table was usually just past the water tables.  The runners had thinned out and the masses hadn’t arrived yet, and the aid station volunteers were probably a little bored.  As I would come through they would get excited and press out trying to hand me something.  As a result, at the end of the volunteers I had to swerve hard 8 feet to the right, spot my bottle, grab it and keep going.  At best my special bottles didn’t cost me time, and they definitely didn’t save me time.

I rolled through the halfway point almost exactly on my goal pace – off by at most 2 seconds in spite of the rolling conditions.  At the end of mile 20 I was 9 seconds behind schedule but knew I had a big downhill ahead.

Miles 21-22: 7:34, 7:30.  That 7:34 mile includes both the downhill and some flat.  I stayed in control on the downhill but probably was slow towards the end.  The flat was actually downhill though and I kept pushing.  The 7:30 mile surprised me a bit but it wasn’t way out of line and I’ve been able to finish strong in my long runs so I didn’t worry.  Yet.

I think I made my one real mistake during this section, not eating a gu.  I considered it but my stomach wasn’t really happy and I couldn’t see getting it out of my bag and going to the effort.  I remember now though how, on one bike ride where things were going south, I forced myself to eat a gu and felt a million times better 15 minutes later.

1 second ahead of schedule after 22 miles.

Miles 23-Finish: 7:50, 15:53 (forgot to push my lap button – about 7:56/mile for the two miles), 8:15, 1:46 for the last .22 (about 7:52 pace).

Obviously the wheels came off starting in mile 23.  I switched to “Finish it”, realizing at some point that it didn’t say anything about “strong” or “fast” or other desirable qualities.  I felt light-headed as I passed the mile 24 marker so I did my race-walk for 30 seconds.  At that point I was sure that 3:20 wasn’t going to happen – I was just on the edge to begin with and clearly slowing down.  So rather than push and crash I decided to limit the damage. The walk helped a lot.  I walked briefly again at 25 – maybe 15 seconds.  I was bumming out big time that I hadn’t driven that last mile – at that point the Garmin error was significant and I didn’t know how far I really had.  The finish line finally appeared and I was able to pick myself up, a little bit.  After I finished, one of the finish line volunteers clung to me for about 4 minutes.  I guess that’s a good sign that I left most of it out there after running a pretty good race.

I looked around for OMR but he was apparently in the one place I didn’t search carefully – the PT section.  He didn’t hit his sub-3 goal but he did finish 2nd in his age group and ran what is to me a blazing fast 3:06+.

They had free massages and I was early enough that there wasn’t much of a line, so I did that and headed back to the hotel.  After about 90 minutes I was walking fine – one of the fringe benefits of running lots of long distance races.  Today I feel tired but good.

Summary:  In those conditions, with my current fitness, on that course, I don’t think I had a 3:20 in me yesterday.  It’s possible the gu would have helped but I suspect that if I had been perfect I would have finished just over 3:20.  Missing a perfect time by a minute or so is pretty good, and I took a shot at the A goal.  You never know unless you try.  Maybe some day.  Otherwise, a great race and I was very surprised to see my name in the age group top 5 list when I looked at results last night.  Except in small races, usually I have to look at the full list and scroll down for a while before my name appears.

Lessons for the future:  1) I need to do more training at marathon pace.  Although my average times look good, I never felt locked into my target pace.  The rolling course may have something to do with that but even on the “flats” it felt variable.  2) For this race I should have run my hard long runs without music.  This race is very explicit about not allowing headphones and I knew that.  I run without music a lot but a lot of the hard stuff was with music, and when things got bad yesterday I wasn’t used to being stuck with my own thoughts.  3) Either cut out the caffeine a week before or don’t worry about it.  4) Maybe skip the special drinks and definitely eat that gu at mile 20 unless my stomach is truly rotten.

I feel sorry for people who are right on the edge of a time goal, especially a Boston qualifier.  I wanted the 3:20, was close for a long way, and didn’t finish too far off.  The margin of error in that situation is so slim though.  Except for hitting that nice round number, it was a great race for me.  Someone who is pushing to BQ and misses it by a few seconds probably ran a great race (for them) but most likely ends up disappointed.

Update:  I realized I said nothing about the scenery.  Rural.  26 miles of vineyards.  Beautiful.  Spectators occasionally at intersections but with the road blocked off quiet otherwise.  I don’t know a lot about wine but I know enough to recognize names.  We passed the wineries for Stags Leap and ZD and a few others that I recognized in the moment and promptly forgot.  The valley that we were running in is fine but it’s the roads up in the hills that are incredible.  Except for running.

Update 2:  Someone pointed out that they make wine in Napa, and that was conspicuously absent from this race report.  Unfortunately, I was only there briefly for the race.  I wasn’t interested before the race.  I had an opportunity to sample some at the mile 24 aid station but you can probably guess that I wasn’t interested then either.  After the race, when I was interested, it was time to head back to the airport.  A future trip maybe.


  1. Congratulations, Mark! A lot went well with the race results – placed well, new PR, and here comes Boston! 🙂 BTW, did the headache dissipate before or after the race began?

  2. Hi Andy, thanks! Yes, the headache disappeared at the start of the race. It’s classic for marathon runners to have “phantom pain” of one sort or another in the days before a race. Headache was a new one for me, although I have noticed that running makes headaches go away for me so maybe it was real.

  3. This was a great read. I am sorry to hear you had to cut your beautiful head of hair off! Gu sounds like some pretty potent stuff! Thanks for writing!

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